Author Jean Rhys said, “Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” What, then, makes a better match than a good book and a new journey?
After the sketchbooks and pocket squares, the travel adapters and tobacco pouch, a good book is always a staple in my travel bag. Airport lounges, long flights, train rides – these are all excellent opportunities to dive into a good read and I always plan on having at least one book on hand for such moments. Now I must confess, for someone who works in travel and writes about travel, I rarely read “travel” books. While I’ll occasionally pick up a travel book or essay as reference material, when it comes to the reading material that I enjoy when I’m on the road, a detailed travel narrative on the cultural diaspora of upper Slovenia is not my cup of tea. More my cup of Nyquil. I enjoy writing that creates a sense of place, writing that takes me out of my immediate environment and immerses me in a new world of textures, characters and ideas. And it doesn’t have to be a travelogue to do that. I am perfectly happy getting lost in a good work of fiction, a collection of meaty critical essays, or a light literary romp.
I also have to admit that I haven’t jumped on the e-reader bandwagon yet. The concept is brilliant – the thought of a single slender device in my shoulder bag sounds like heaven – but I can’t get past the coldness of the screen. I love the weight and feel of a book, the physical turning of pages. Sorry, world-of-technology, I’m just not there yet.
So here are a few of my favorite road reads. Some are books I found myself immersed in on a particular journey; others are like old friends that I bring along for the ride time after time.
For anyone who loves to travel and dine, could there possibly be a better way to begin a book?
I discovered Peter Mayle’s autobiographical A Year in Provence nearly twenty years ago at a transitional time in my life. Between apartments, between relationships and between jobs with no clear vision of a career, I found myself deflated on every level imaginable. This little book lifted my spirits and rekindled my passion for food, travel and language. Merci beaucoup, monsieur Mayle.
A Year in Provence is a delightful account of the author’s move from the bustling world of London’s ad agency scene to the provincial countryside of Southern France. Divided into the months of the year, each chapter is by turns both an account of Mayle’s day-to-day efforts at restoring an 18th century farmhouse and a celebration of the simple pleasures of living. And when I say simple pleasures, I mean food and wine. Pâtés of rabbit and boar, rustic local stews and six-course meals stretched deliciously out over several hours, all washed down with an array of wines, champagnes and digestifs – I defy any reader to make it through a chapter without drooling (or booking the first flight to Provence).
Food and drink aside, what I found most engaging about the autobiography – and what keeps me coming back to the book again and again – was the texture Mayle brought to the narrative. This isn’t merely a food critic’s account of meals or vintages. A Year in Provence paints a vibrant picture of a region full texture, color and character. With the gift of a true storyteller, Mayle’s account forgoes the tropes of a travelogue and instead provides an engaging picture of real life away from the slickly packaged tourist experience. Here you’ll find the frustrations, challenges, wit, humor – and, of course, the pure sensory delight – that made up the author’s first year living in Provence.
Most novels naturally create a sense of space and location as an extension of their story: a novel set in 1950’s London should, by default, establish and describe the setting of 1950’s London. Then there are those books where, to a greater or lesser extent, the setting is the story or, at the very least, a major character (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness immediately comes to mind). And then there’s Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
A beautifully poetic novel (some might say a collection of essays), Invisible Cities follows a series of fictional conversations between a young Marco Polo and an aging Kublai Khan. Sitting in his fabled gardens, Khan listens as the explorer recounts stories and descriptions of the many cities in the ruler’s far-flung empire. On the surface, Invisible Cities is about just that: cities and space and the dynamics that make them both similar and distinctly unique. But very quickly the book reveals itself to be about so much more. Perception, language, memory and loss; Calvino’s book is a literary gem that taps into the bittersweet poetry of the human experience. At just over 150 pages, Invisible Cities is a quick read, but one that holds new discoveries and insights each time you open it. Read it and it will change the way you travel and see the world.
What kind of book is Stephen Fry’s The Hippopotamus? If you can imagine P.G. Wodehouse by way of Oscar Wilde, you’d be starting in the right neighborhood. Literary influences aside, the charming voice and razor wit are pure Stephen Fry. The Hippopotamus follows the escapades of the jaded and curmudgeonly Ted Wallace, known to both colleagues and adversaries as the Hippopotamus. A gifted man, Ted finds himself nonetheless on a downward trajectory (much of his own making) when it comes to career, family and relationships. A timely invitation from an old friend provides him with a welcome escape to Swafford Hall, a proper English country house, and, as they say, wackiness ensues. At turns both tender and ribald, The Hippopotamus is more than simply a wonderful page-turner. For me, Fry deftly captures a world entirely foreign to a boy from the beaches of Southern California – the world of the English middle and upper class – yet does so in a way that makes the rituals and routines seem both familiar and accessible. I was completely pulled into Fry’s delightfully witty world – and loved every moment of it.
The Lucifer Box trilogy
Deliciously wicked. There’s no other way to describe the wonderful romp that is Mark Gatiss’ Lucifer Box trilogy. Beginning with The Vesuvius Club, this entertaining series of novels follows the adventures of the fictional Lucifer Box: painter, dandy, gentleman scoundrel, secret agent. Conveniently residing at Number 9 Downing Street, Mr. Box tackles an array of sinister plots and evil geniuses with dash and verve – and always with ample time for seducing both women and men (all work and no play, as they say…). Particularly entertaining is the way Gatiss plays with the spy genre over the course of the three novels: a Dorian Gray-type agent in Edwardian London in The Vesuvius Club, a dashing assassin on assignment in 1920’s New York in The Devil in Amber, and a 1950’s spy in the Black Butterfly that would have made Ian Fleming proud (complete with characters named Christmas Box and Kingdom Kum). Witty and quick paced (and with tongue firmly planted in cheek), Mr. Gatiss crafted a delightful series that made many a long plane ride pass with a smile.
(As a point of interest, Mr. Gatiss is both a contributing writer to the ongoing BBC series, Dr. Who, as well as a co-creator of the brilliant Sherlock series: a seemingly natural evolution, I believe, of the rakish Lucifer.)
Other favorite reads:
A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
Dirk Gently’s Hollistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams
The Club Dumas, Arturo Perez-Reverte
Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman
Lighthousekeeping, Jeanette Winterson
The Chess Garden, Brooks Hansen
The Somnambulist, Jonathan Barnes
Currently in my bag:
The Shadows of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Blink, Malcolm Gladwell
An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin